Acquiring Perspective

I have long believed the hardest skill to acquire is perspective. That is because it comes with the experiences of aging and cannot be rushed. Some call it maturity. It makes us realize the inherent limitations, contradictions, hyperbole and nonsense of our evolving views about life. Hence, it is an avenue to humility.

Perspective is a nuanced quality of character that reminds us of the need for constant change and flexibility in pursuit of becoming better. It enables us to re-examine the theories we acquired in school or in places of worship or from a myriad of great books. It informs us that human nature is both mysterious and predictable, infuriating yet often endearing, and always fascinating and instructive.

We occasionally speak of taking the perspective of someone else – a curious notion and an admirable aspiration but a practical impossibility. Despite our good intentions or our desires to understand or empathize with others, we are always captive to our learned prejudices, unique frames of reference and self-imposed beliefs about what constitutes truth. Our biases, in particular, are an intellectual disease that weaken the immune system of our ability to think differently, critically and creatively.

The mother of all our biases is the belief that we are not biased. Yet we all are. And these biases generate perverse errors of judgment, especially when we are trying to interpret novel ideas or making sense of information that contradicts our cherished beliefs. They are simply the rules of thumb, or mental short cuts, that help us simplify our complex, ever-changing world and enable us to make important decisions more quickly and with a higher degree of satisfaction. This invariably results in our being easily manipulated or reacting passively or predictably rather than thinking more judiciously.

An understanding of just how our biases distort what we perceive allows us to know ourselves better. It fosters an enlightening perspective on the beliefs we hold dear but that prevent us from making good choices and taking greater control of our lives. If our mental model of how the world should work is inflexible, we are thinking on only one cylinder, which is why we make decisions in the same way with the same results. As some say, if you only have a hammer as a (thinking) tool, every problem looks like a nail.

Perspective is the ability to transcend this myopia or, in a worst case, blindness. It enables us to anticipate unexpected circumstances and deal with difficult associates by looking at them through a different lens and from different angles. We don’t perceive the world as it is. We see it as we are, as we were taught to see it or in keeping with what suits our parochial interests at any given moment. Thoreau said “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” that counts.

A change in perspective can be transformative. Changing the way we look at something changes what we actually see. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, everything is perspective but certainly not truth. This awareness is one of the necessities of achieving a more fulfilling existence. Without the illumination of perspective, we are unable to resolve some of the greatest paradoxes of life and find the balance between these seeming opposites, such as confidence vs. humility, freedom vs. responsibility and contemplation vs. action.

Perspective is acquired through realistic self-appraisal, constructive self-criticism and beneficial feedback. It is essential for recalculating our internal compass, the one we use to navigate around the obstacles and along the bi-ways of life. The objective is to open ourselves to multiple, less jaded, less spiteful and more imaginative interpretations of reality – to learn how to see what others don’t (or won’t). As Sherlock said to Watson: I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.

Self-criticism can be healthy; self-loathing and self-blaming are not. Useful self-awareness is that which acknowledges the consequences of being human, especially the fact that we all make mistakes. Self-congratulation and admiration easily metastasize into resentment and despair in the insecure and envious. When it is honest and balanced, self-criticism is an essential survival skill of the creative spirit. When we learn to accept honest criticism, we can use it as a catalyst for personal and professional growth. So genuinely seek it, listen to it, acknowledge it with appropriate gratitude and then say no more.

Although counter-intuitive to most westerners, the esteemed artist Ai Weiwei tells us “criticism, in the Chinese context, is a positive, creative act.” Since external and internal criticism (Freud called our internal critic the superego) is an inevitable fact of life, this notion is a useful observation worth nurturing.

Perspective teaches us to be less concerned about what’s past, which is why some call it water passing under the bridge. Rather, pay attention to what may be coming next and how best to deal with it. Success is never about falling down; it’s always about getting up and pushing on. Insist on feedback that explains how you can improve, that deals specifically with your behavior not your personality, that respects your autonomy and that is collaborative, not dictatorial.

Perspective enables us to cope with adversity, accentuate the positives and never give up, realize that without failure we are neither trying hard enough nor learning, dare to dream and keep our eyes steadfast on the truly important goals, become more patient and hence more flexible, discover what you love to do and then love what you do.

Some things in life have no expiry dates – they just get better with age. Perspective is one of those. It allows us to become comfortable with lessons learned rather than inconsolably focusing on regrets. It enables us to embrace that unassailable imperative of finding our identity: to thine own self be true. It gives us the why of our purpose. And, with that, we are better equipped to tolerate almost any setback or challenge.